Gender equality in sports is a wonderful thing.

Boys and girls should have the same opportunity to play the games they love. All college athletes have a right to expect equal access to facilities and scholarship money.

That’s all good stuff. If America isn’t there yet, we’ve made great gains.

When it comes to the professional game, however, all bets are off. The big leagues are a performance-driven industry beholden to what the market will bear, no different than music or motion pictures.

We might even make the case that it’s common sense for a 17-year-old girl and golf prodigy to hone those skills on a level playing field against other girls and young women. If and when she achieves a transcendent skill level that makes regularly competing against men a logical next step, more power to the lady.

Someone in Michelle Wie’s camp is starved for common sense. Perhaps the guilty party is Wie herself, but I’m inclined to believe that it’s probably a parent, agent or sponsor living vicariously through this promising athlete; someone with the itch to achieve a certain financial status or make some hackneyed political statement.

For the fourth time this year, Wie failed miserably Friday in trying to qualify for a men’s event. At the Casio World Open on the Japanese tour, Wie backed up her first-round 81 with an 80, matching her age with her number of strokes over par through 36 holes.

Wie beat one amateur. If you’re the ultimate seeker of silver linings, that’s an improvement over her dead-last finishes in the European Masters and the PGA Tour 84 Lumber Classic. In her first brush with the PGA, Wie stopped at the turn in her second round, citing heat exhaustion.

“It was pretty tragic, that’s how I’d describe it,” Wie said of Friday’s struggle, later adding, “I learn a lot from playing with the men.”

Well, at least Wie’s opening statement demonstrates that she has learned to put sports in the same hyperbolic, distorted perspective as pot-bellied, middle-aged men. Spending your Thanksgiving weekend playing 10-handicap golf at a ocean-side resort doesn’t equal tragedy, OK?

The second comment begs a follow-up question that nobody dares ask: Like what? What is Michelle Wie learning, or proving, by putting up the kind of numbers a geriatric Jack Nicklaus puts on the board at the British Open these days?

What Wie presently proves is that some corporation or chamber of commerce will always recognize that she’s exploitable enough to merit a wild card invitation into their tournaments. If that’s how this tremendous talent wants to begin building her legacy, by all means, make infamy while the sun shines.

Those of us who truly love sports – and I take my sports without labels, thank you, so no men’s, women’s or youth qualifiers necessary – should pray that Wie is learning the right lessons from these ill-fated forays.

Lesson One: She isn’t physically, mentally or emotionally ready for the PGA Tour at 17. And there’s no shame in that. Tiger Woods wasn’t ready, either.

Lesson Two: The best way for Wie to get ready for whatever the next decade or two has in store for her is to quit worrying what Nike, Adidas, ESPN, Mom, Dad and ardent feminists think.

Wie should continue polishing her game in an environment where she is currently competitive. True, she has the same number of tournament victories on the LPGA Tour as Anna Kournikova had in her tennis career: Zilch. But at least she’s making the cut.

At least she’s on the leader board almost every Sunday afternoon. At least she isn’t humiliating herself by chasing everyone else’s windmill and attacking courses that don’t yet fit her game.

Truthfully, the odds are against Wie ever evolving into a top-50 player on the PGA money list. And so what if she doesn’t? Why do we insist on short-changing great female athletes for being great in comparison to other women?

Sheryl Swoopes is no less groundbreaking, no less talented simply because she chooses not to take a physical pounding from Vince Carter, LeBron James and Yao Ming 82 nights a year. Venus and Serena Williams don’t have to drop straight-setters to Roger Federer to show me they’re for real. The Women’s World Cup victory was no less meaningful because Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain weren’t playing Manchester United.

When Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs, nearly twice her age and nine exit signs past whatever prime he had, it breathed life into women’s sports. That night in 1973 ended any lingering debate over the Title IX legislation that passed the previous year. Case closed.

It also had damaging, unintended consequences, however. We’ve now raised two generations of girls who are silently taught that their athletic accomplishments are less meaningful if they aren’t achieved against boys.

So they become Michelle Wie, more concerned with blazing a trail than with being herself. It’s bound to bankrupt her confidence, if not her bank account and her dignity. And that isn’t what the real women’s sports trailblazers had in mind.

Kalle Oakes is a staff writer. He can be rached by e-mail at [email protected]

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